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3Qs: ‘A seminal moment’ in NCAA history

Earlier this month, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted to give schools in the so-called “Power 5” conferences—the ACC, Big 12, Big 10, SEC, and Pac-12—the autonomy to create their own policies and legislation on a range of issues, including stipends to student-athletes, insurance coverage, and recruiting rules. Things that wouldn’t be affected include postseason, scholarship limits, transfer policies, and rules about on-field play. Now, there is a 60-day period in which D-1 schools can request an override. Supporters say such autonomy will strengthen D-1 athletics and is a win for student-athletes, while critics, such as Northeastern University Athletic Director Peter Roby, are concerned about what this means for the competitive balance in college athletics as well as the unintended consequences. We asked Roby to discuss these topics in greater detail.

What’s your reaction to this vote and what it means for the NCAA?

It’s a seminal moment in the history of the NCAA. You can’t overstate it. We still don’t know what it all means. What we do know is the board of directors has allowed the five power conferences to control their own destiny, and we’re not certain about what it means for the rest of us. It’s making some people, including me, uneasy because there will be unintended consequences that trickle down—and not just to the competitive balance between the “Power 5” conferences and the other conferences. This is a fundamental shift in the NCAA’s governance structure and the way it does its work, and I’m also concerned that this continues a trend of moving those schools away from the mission of education. The rest of us get stuck with that label too because as schools in the NCAA, we’re all painted with the same brush.

Football is a huge source of revenue and is driving these changes. With the revenue generated, these schools are paying coaches a lot of money and building Taj Mahals for athletic facilities. This is the situation they’ve created, and what’s resulted is what I call “bad optics” over the amount of money they’re generating and the increased media scrutiny. These “bad optics” shouldn’t be the motivation to make changes like this.

The “cost-of-attendance stipend” for student-athletes is widely considered among the first topics the Power 5 would address with its autonomy. What’s your take on the stipend issue?

I worry that there won’t be any consistency from one school or conference to the next. You could have kids pitting schools against each other based upon the size of the stipend they offer. Part of the reason people feel they have to provide more in terms of cost-of-attendance is because kids are participating in university athletics year-round. They’re not going home for the summer like they used to. They’re on campus, in class, in the weight room. If these schools hadn’t been so hell-bent on keeping such a competitive advantage, maybe these kids could be home working and putting money in their pockets. It’s another example of, “we’ve created a monster, and now have to figure out how to feed it.”

I’m not in favor of a stipend. Yes, some families will have financial issues to address. But every family that sends a child to college is confronted with those decisions, and as a family you address them and figure out sacrifices that might have to be made. Also, financial resources such as Pell Grants and the NCAA Student Assistance Fund are already available to student-athletes. Through the federal Pell Grant program, students who demonstrate need can qualify for up to $5,700 each year. That money doesn’t have to be repaid, and students can use it in any way they choose. But these autonomy changes make it seem like the students would be entitled to stipends. It would devalue education.

What are the benefits that can come from the NCAA’s vote on autonomy changes?

Certainly there are some benefits. They will bring more attention to the health and safety protocols that protect student-athletes. However, if student-athletes want unlimited food, then feed them. No one’s arguing about that, nor is anyone arguing about bringing back student-athletes to get their degrees or guaranteeing four-year scholarships even if there’s an injury. There are a number of measures like these that would be permissible without granting this autonomy, which calls into question the intent of all this.

Again, we still don’t know the full picture of what this all means and what specific changes the power conferences will propose. Schools in those conferences will be submitting their lists of legislation by Oct. 1, and the deadline for schools to request an override on the board’s vote is only a few days later. I’d like there to be a “sunset provision,” which would allow us in five years to take another look at what changes occur so we can review them, tweak them, and, if necessary, revote. But so far there’s been no discussion of that.

Getting back to the student-athletes, one of the things I’ve taken offense to is how the power conferences have contextualized these changes as being about the welfare of student-athletes. This suggests that the other conferences like ours aren’t focused on student-athlete welfare. That’s disingenuous, and, in fact, I think we’re doing it more so.

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